Southeast Asia, Part VI: Bagan, a Sea of Ancient Relics

I’d seen photos of this place for years: its ancient temple-tops peering out over the jungle canopy, fog burning off across the landscape, a sea of relics strewn across a massive plain, a centuries-old board game interrupted by the future. Like something out of an adventure movie, Bagan called to me.

And so it was that I travelled from Inle Lake to Bagan to start this leg of the journey.

I arrive in the evening (a far less traumatic taxi ride than the last), my taxi depositing me at the hotel, a gardened temple replica tucked behind a tour bus-filled street thronging with supping masses. A pit of dread lodges in my stomach as I hope my experience here wouldn’t be this, erm, crowded. The staff: doting; the room: miniscule. Luckily, I wasn’t planning on spending much time inside anyway.

Bagan is an ancient sacred Burmese city, named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the summer of 2018. That means protection and restoration (and the climbing of temples now prohibited), but it also means it’s not an under-the-radar destination anymore. I’m glad I’m seeing it now.

Essentially, the Bagan Archaeological Zone is a minefield of temples and stupas and pagodas and monasteries strewn across a 100 sq km area, encompassing over 3500 complexes built between the 11th and 13th centuries. In its day, there were over 4000, and by some estimates there are/were over 10,000 individual structures here.

My first day’s mission was to see some of the larger sites. I hired an e-bike and set off. You pay the equivalent of about $5 for a day’s rental of a silent scooter to shuttle you about Bagan. It’s necessary, I soon learn, as the place is enormous, and the air is hot and dry. If nothing else, the breeze is refreshing as the red dust nestles, well, everywhere!

I make it to the Shwezigon Paya early-ish, and the market is not yet in full swing. A pushy but not unfriendly woman points out a good place to park my scooter, and duly notes a good place to leave my shoes while I wander the site. She comments that I should come visit her shop in the market on my way out. Similar to Shwedagon in Yangon, this paya is thronged with tourists even at this early hour, so once I’m done, I bee-line it out of there to get to some of the other sites before the mobs do. The experience walking through the gallery on the way out of the pagoda made me feel not unlike a piece of meat: vendors, like dogs, drooling and nipping at me to get me to buy something; some more rabid than others.

Annoyed by the time I get to the door where I left my shoes, I was verging on incensed when I realised they weren’t there. The lady at the shop has them I was informed. My shoes are being held ransom I thought. After gathering my shoes from the woman, at the risk of being hexed for not making a purchase, I hastily make my way out of there.

I was not enjoying Bagan at all as yet.

The thing about Bagan is that there is a temple of some sort pretty much every 20 feet. So I head down the main road towards Old Bagan, joining the melange of motorbikes, horse-drawn buggies, taxis and e-scooters going my way. In the process, I found some pretty amazing sites. I also tracked down the only Hindu temple in Bagan, which is also said to be the oldest here, built in the 10th or 11th century. It is a temple to Vishnu and houses statues and wall paintings not only of Vishnu, but also of Brahma, Shiva and Ganesha.

I spend the rest of the day alternately cursing tour buses (and their occupants) and gaping wide-mouthed at the temples large and small, as I maneuver around the sites on my e-bike. It is really no wonder they’re here (the tourists, that is), but the crowds also make for a less-than wonderful experience. The afternoon wanes, and in trying to escape the throngs and hawkers and sleazy tour mongers (want to see the sunset? … want to buy this [trinket/bauble/blanket/hat/postcard/painting]?…want to go to a secret spot to climb a temple?), I finally find a hilltop from which to watch the sunset (empty when I arrive but full as the sun dips below the horizon).

I end the day not overly impressed with the Bagan experience thus far, while being simultaneously floored by the architectural wonders around me.

My goal for Day 2 is to avoid the swarms and visit only sites that have no parking lots, no tourist buses, no mobs of people milling about. Before I embark on this mission, my morning starts with one of the 2 or 3 splurgiest things I’ve ever done: a hot air balloon ride over Bagan.

It was a surreal hour, beginning as the sun came up, and ending with us landed in a field, drinking a glass of champagne (as one does).

Hedonistic as it was, the flight really helped put the scale of this place into perspective! Each temple, pagoda, stupa, or monastery feels like it ought to be an historic site on its own, so seeing this (collective) wonder from above was just an amazing experience. Highly recommended!

I spend the rest of the day scooting around the city, taking interesting-looking and/or less-travelled dirt roads (one even led me into someone’s yard!!), then wandering down bramble-lined paths among and between the ancient structures… I explored large temples and small, even stumbled upon a spectacular monastic complex hiding in plain sight.

This day ended with me feeling fuller, and more fulfilled, than I did the day before. I even took in a traditional puppet show at dinner.

In a nutshell, I spent two very long but very different days amongst these ruins at Bagan, seeing the well-known and the, well, not-so-much. Some of the sites clearly generated something like magnetism for me, drawing me in through their stone archways and ancient doors. And some made me want to forget that I’d ever been there. There is certainly energy afoot, and it’s not surprising that each of the structures calls to different people differently: what I find fascinating might be a dull pile of old brick to the next wanderer-by; the ghosts of each temple chanting centuries of silence to those who listen carefully.

I said goodbye to Bagan before dawn this morning and boarded a boat to Mandalay, hoping one day to be back.


Read More: [Part I] [Part II] [Part III] [Part IV] [Part V]

Invoking the destroyer

I had brekkie with my dear friend and Teacher after class this morning. We talked about the fall from sanity in this country, the challenge we have in being human in this “less-than” world we walk through every day. We talked about the inequalities woven into the very framework of our very privileged Western lives. We lamented a feeling of restlessness and helplessness and still a desire to do something or create Something. That. Matters.

This morning in class, we chanted an invocation to Shiva, the destroyer; the Hindu deity who invites us to break through what doesn’t serve to make way for what may come… invocation1It’s ironic that in a room full of privileged white folk (privileged to be able to afford the class, the clothes, the transport, the freedom of time, the luxury of freedom), the chant and the message still resonates. Louder with some and softer with others, je suppose.

So as we Westerners quest to reach those lofty heights we’re supposed to, we pursue control and domination, we marginalize that which makes us feel less large, buy things to make us feel wealthier, and somewhere in the process we stop being objective. Ego drives need and we fail to notice the smaller magical moments along the way, checking instead for likes and followers; celebrating status.

The practice reminds us students to be present and observant and objective – about ourselves, about the greater world and about our impact on it. The invocation reminds me that there is this grand connection between our individual selves and that which is out of our control, and there is a fine line to walk in order to balance between the two. That the natural world maybe owns us as much as we feel entitled to owning it. That we can draw upon our internal fire (tejas) when we need it. That the Universe teaches us lessons each day, more so when we’re paying attention. The natural world can only be. And that being human(e) is at the core of everything that’s important.

These ancient words help me come back to a simpler place where humanity matters. Material stuff and status and ego, not so much. This morning’s practice helped me consider that in the blaring absurdity of today’s headlines and talking heads that the more credence and attention we give them, the more they become the norm. Though I’d like to, I won’t hide under a rock until this election is over – the blowback might well be worse than its genesis –  and deliberate ignorance is more likely the cause than the solution. Much of what has been cannot be un-said.

Whether or not the Sanskrit words resonate, I hope we can agree it will take a strong and very observant, very present army of humans to right the balance of decency on this small chunk of the planet.

I’ll go to sleep tonight with this chant resonating, invoking in dreams those things that might destroy the evil brewing in the real world.

Namaste.

om-purple

 

 

Solo in Delhi, Day 2: Wherein I Find My Temple and Learn the Gods’ Days

I’ve heard India described as “everything coming at you at once.” This is pretty close to the truth. The chaos has its own rhythm and creates this meditative background noise that I’m sure I will miss when I’m home in the quiet. Again, I become part of this ridiculously enchanting synchronised chaos.

The city of Delhi, simultaneously gritty, foreboding, noisy, hectic, crowded, ancient and in renewal has this heartbeat that is musical and pulsating with an energy unlike anything I’ve felt. It is compelling and intriguing and happy and heartbreaking. The smiles belie the poverty and the grit. The warm hearts soften the warnings I’ve heeded (and not needed). This is not the romantic city of Udaipur, but from the moment I acclimated to the pace and atmosphere here in India (I’m not sure whether that was 5 minutes or 3 days after I arrived), I’ve felt this magnetic attraction to the underlying energies that make this place just work.

DSCF2288

Today I visited Humayun’s Tomb, which is a fantastic oasis in middle of this great whirlwind. Humayun was the second Mughal emperor, and the tomb was built in the 16th century by his senior wife. I dare not sidetrack on the contradictions inherent in this faith nor on the role of women in their society. At the time (Hindu or Muslim), the foremost role of the king’s wife was to bear a son. Multiple wives/concubines I guess simply increased the odds. Humayun’s senior wife was Persian, and with her heritage brought Persian style to Delhi. To me it seemed a hybrid of Hindu and Muslim architecture, the ornate marble/sandstone tomb (that looks like a red-and-white pre-Taj Mahal) and distinctly Mughal gardens.

hoopoe1With scores of eagles and migratory Mongolian cranes circling above, I wandered the restored monuments in awe. The birds in this city are a marvel… if one pauses momentarily and looks up (also down, as the stonework is truly impressive in many places), one notices the scores of parakeets, eagles, hoopoes (this fascinating Asian woodpecker-looking thing), starlings and even pigeons by the thousands and tens of thousands – in the sky, trees and perched on the buildings.

Back in Humayun’s place, Isa Khan’s tomb is an intricately-carved, grand and well-preserved/restored example of what I learned is Lodi architecture. It is a strong yet feminine building, with precious detail along the top. A grand walled garden makes this part of the complex its own mini fortress and for me really stole the show at this site. A side-highlight for me here was a litter of perhaps 2-week old puppies that I stopped to take as many photos of as I did the tomb.

After consulting Lonely Planet, the next stop was Hauz Khas village, an artsy shopping district beside a 13th-century reservoir with wonderfully-intact (and semi-restored) tombs, domed buildings and an old school. The gardens and structures were teeming with Indian students – all seemingly late teens or college-aged, hand-in-hand or giggling and chattering and selfie-ing in small groups of friends. The chatter and the laughter pervades the archways, steep staircases and 600 year-old facades. I think I have become enamored with the medieval architecture here.

My driver and I press on to the site that truly takes my breath away. We brave the traffic and fly (and alternately crawl) past the dozens of temples and parks and attractions that one could understandably miss if they only saw Delhi on a foggy cold day in December. The Laxmi Narayan Temple looks outlandish at first, with a “kiddie temple” off the car park, and its bright terra cotta and yellow exterior.

I did not do my homework, nor was I prepared for this temple. As I removed my shoes and walked into the entry parlour, I felt the energy of this place. I think people must feel this way when they enter their favorite church. It was a breath of fresh air and felt like coming home. I was the only Caucasian there. After wandering the exterior, I braved to step inside and see the puja stations. There were pujas for Lakshmi (Laxmi) in different poses, with other deities as necessary. I felt pulled to one of the pujas and watched for a few minutes as the guru there had offerings blessed (coconut, flowers, sweets, and a cloth – I’m not sure what it all represents, but I was mesmerized with the ritual of it). We began chatting and he blessed me, gave me a wreath of flowers and a dot on my 3rd eye, then returned with some sweets as prasad (as are the flowers, sweets are offered to the deity, blessed, and distributed to worshippers to share in the offering). I felt chills. Afterwards, as I wandered through the rest of the temple, I came across a room with excerpts from the Bhagavad Gita engraved in Sanskrit on the walls. The Lakshmi puja at the end of this room had the other deities (Shiva, Parvati, Ganesha) sitting at her feet… it was nothing less than a magical experience. I reveled in the sunshine as I exited the temple, with Indians in sarees and kurtas bestowing upon me confounded looks, stares and half-smiles.

DSCF2365The last stop of the day was for fun. There is a 108-foot Hanuman statue and temple sitting beside a busy traffic roundabout by the Jhanderwalan metro station. To me, this is a great example of this culture not taking itself too seriously…the symphonic cacophany of traffic noise and trains and tuk tuk horns and stuff wallahs is epic and also perfect in its absurdity underneath this troublemaking god’s purvue.

I learned today that the gods each have their day…. Like the Norse gods for whom some of our days of the week are named, India has puja days for each important deity. Sunday is Surya, the sun god. Monday is Shiva and/or Brahma depending on who you ask (surprising to hear it’s not also Chandra’s day). Tuesday is Hanuman and/or Ganesha’s day. Wednesday is Vithal: Mercury (there is a loose connection between Odin [Woden], for whom the Norse named the day, and Mercury). Thursday is Vishnu and/or Ganesha again, also depending on who you ask. Friday is Durga, the Goddess, and Saturday is Shani and general astrology (Shani means Saturn, which is also the name of the day in other mythology, including Norse!).